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Discomforting Grasp of Holocaust Horrors: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

 

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

by Daniel de Andrade

Northern Ballet at Richmond Theatre, 6th and 7th June

Review by Suzanne Louise Frost

Let me just start of by saying: I am very fond of David Nixon, the artistic director of Northern Ballet.  When I was six years old, I made my very first steps on a professional stage as a gnome in Cinderella at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and David Nixon was the prince.  He was our star male dancer of that decade in Berlin and I love the path his career has taken now, leading one of the most innovative companies in the UK, and one that has narrative ballet at the core of its philosophy.  So I was very interested in seeing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  It is my firm believe that with good choreographers and great dancers there is no story that ballet couldn’t tell and no subject matter too big for this wordless art.  But just because you can – does it mean you should?

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a popular novel by Irish author John Boyne, later adapted into a successful Miramax film directed by Mark Herman.  It explores the horrors of the Holocaust through a child’s perspective: nine-year-old German boy Bruno, son of a high ranking German commander, forming a friendship with an interned Jewish boy named Shmuel through the fence of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.  In the UK, Matthew Bourne has become probably the most popular choreographer by successfully adapting films for the stage (such as Edward Scissorhands and most recently The Red Shoes) and inventing a very cinematic style of staging that makes for great story telling.  But why David Nixon thought this film, of everything out there, would make a great ballet is a little bit bewildering.  Unfortunately, it is very hard to overcome the whiff of bad taste around dancing Nazis.  As a German, as a Berliner, from a city where every street corner bears some kind of memorial to our tremendous collective guilt, where every few steps you can trip over a “Stoplerstein” with the name of a Holocaust victim, seeing the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” sign from the gate of Auschwitz as a prop is a bit challenging.  I am not saying that ballet can’t tackle serious subjects.  Crystal Pite just had tremendous success with Flight Pattern, a phenomenally moving and harrowing ballet about the current refugee crisis.  She does have a much more abstract approach though.  I wonder if goose-stepping corps de ballet dancers should maybe best be left to the realm of The Producers -satire.

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My mood changed towards the end of Act I, when the two boys finally meet in a very poetic scene through that transparent yet unbridgeable barbed wire fence, beautifully set off by very reduced, minimal stage design and lighting.  The second act is altogether more dramatic with the action moving along at a fast pace: Bruno brings a secret stash of food to his new friend and, in an attempt to overcome the wall separating them, puts on one of the striped “pyjamas” (his naïve perception of the Auschwitz inmates’ uniform).  The masquerade has fateful consequences…

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The choreography, by long term Northern Ballet collaborator Daniel de Andrade is innovative and daring throughout with very interesting and unusual lifts, turns, slides and floor work.  The childlike innocence of Bruno is characterized by playful cartwheels, rolls and euphoric jumps and Matthew Koon gives a flawless performance.  The technical standard of the entire company is excellent and there are emotional moments, most notably from Hannah Bateman as a torn mother starting to grasp the horrors of her husband’s doing.  Victoria Sibson as the grandmother shows humanity, caring for a hungry inmate serving at the dinner table and furiously condemning the violence the Nazi officers show towards him.  But I felt that the characters are oversimplified and only Filippo di Vilio as Shmuel – riveted by hunger, fear is his eyes yet still full of childlike curiosity – manages to be more than one-dimensional.

I am aware the child’s perspective is the point of this particular story but is it the best way of tackling something as immense as the Holocaust?  Is it a good idea displaying the “spirit of Adolf Hitler” as some sort of leather-clad dementor with a gas mask?  In Boyne’s novel, Bruno mishears “Führer” as “fury”, therefore imagining him as a kind of evil spirit.  I have a real issue with this.  With all due respect, Auschwitz is in Poland and these kind of word games make no sense neither in German nor in the Polish language.  I know this problem stems from the source material but it is also lazy research, when an entire character results from a clunky translation mistake.  A dramaturge could have helped here.

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In the programme, Nixon states his wish to create a show for the very talented small male dancers in his company and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas certainly works in that sense.  The pas de deux between the two boys explore male friendship without any hint at the homoerotic, which is refreshing in a ballet context.  But Nixon also mentions that he first thought about adapting Anne Frank’s diary and I almost wish they had gone with that.  Anne Frank tells a coming of age story exploring emotions of fear, claustrophobia, sexual awakening and looming danger via the backdrop of the Holocaust.  It would have avoided choreographing an actual going-into-the-gas-chamber dance sequence.

I wonder if my reaction is a bit too politically correct.  At no point is this ballet actually offensive.  But maybe a little ill-advised? Here is a company with a passion for storytelling, excellent dancers, skilful choreographers and the guts to make brave decisions.  I wish I could have liked it more.

Suzanne Louise Frost

June 2017

Photographs courtesy of Northern Ballet © Emma Kauldhar

Verse, Varied and Vigorous: Poetry at the Adelaide

 

Poetry at the Adelaide

An Inauguration of Performance Poetry

Performance Poetry

at The Adelaide, Teddington 4th June

Review by Mark Aspen

Here’s a bit of prejudice: poets are consumptive young men with huge floppy bow-ties waning in garrets.  No, no, no, we mean performance poets.  Ah, they are shy lady librarians reciting quietly between the bookshelves … or are they musical Caribbeans?  Oh, no, they are depressed Northern academics … or was it horny-handed farmers well-grounded with their livestock?

You see, until now it has been hard to tell, for poets in and around Teddington have kept themselves well hidden.  Poetry has been one of the few art forms without a wide exposure hereabouts.  That has now been redressed with the formation of Performance Poetry, an ad-hoc group formed at the initiative of Anne Warrington, a local RADA actress, and Bob Sheed, who has been running poetry workshops over a number of years.  Sunday saw the inaugural meeting of Performance Poetry, in the convivial surroundings of The Adelaide at Teddington.

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Poets are, we discovered, from diverse backgrounds and experiences.  None, as far as we discovered are librarians, shy or otherwise, or farmers, horny-handed or otherwise.  However, they had a wonderfully interesting and entertaining range of subjects and moods.  Some were whimsical and nostalgic, some were romantic and philosophical, some were descriptive and very many were brilliantly humorous.

Some of the contributing poets included members of Bob Sheed’s The Luther Poets, a poetry working group.  An inspiration-triggering technique that they used was to start with a key-word.  So we had a number of poems on the themes, “outside”, “fashion” or “indecision”.

 

 

“Outside” inspired Heather (Montford)’s nostalgic recollections of children being free to play outside after the Second World War, Fran’s landscape portrait around Kingston, Pat’s Kew Gardens and (drawing from her experiences as a teacher) the perversity of young children who will find every excuse not to go outside into the playground, except when it is snowing.  Graham took the outside theme to extremes, outer space in fact, musing on the beauty of space … but with a twist.

Children did feature in quite a few of the poems, Anne reflecting on how children can be unintentionally cruel.  Bill, the church verger, whom they taunted as “the old geezer”, became warmly remembered after his death with the fond soubriquet, “Geezer Bill”.    Her reflective mood continued in a duet with Bob, Duchess, about a grand elderly lady, now past her best in a nursing home, acted out by Anne, suitably clad in a moth-eaten fox-fur stole.  Grandly passing orders to “her” gardener in confident aristocratic manner, we discover that, before the deprivations of dementia, she was in fact the landlady of The Duchess pub.  It was a sad triumph of pathos.

And on the subject of pubs, Pat introduced a piece of protest nostalgia that elicited murmers of agreement.  Why is it when a pub has had a name established for centuries, do new licencees feel the need to change it to something different (that everyone hates)?  So a real traditional name is changed into a plastic pastiche of a “real” traditional name.

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Bob combined two themes of “fashion” and “father” into a satirical poem: a description of the narrator’s father, a portrait sculptor who against his better judgement agrees to create a bust of Tony Blair, and chooses anthracite as his medium.  Bob has quite a biting sense of humour, and in his retelling of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, has the fate of the hapless Humpty consequent upon his being a lover of the Queen.

Heather (Moulson) brought some well-studied realism to her trio of poems, the cynical verse, Beautician, whose work is only skin deep; Evelyn, a warm epitaph to a deceased friend; and Babysitter, which ironically reveals the subject’s true motives.

Heather (Montford), who is also an artist, put Black on her poetic easel, a study in monochrome, Rembrandt’s skilfully nuanced use of the colour, its association with negative concepts, but its real contribution to the palette as a colour of strength and positivity.

Melissa also had well studied poems on tragic, reflective and philosophical subjects.  There was a study of the duties of a soldier in a war, “many keys but no deeds”; a piece considering the now dented armour of chivalry; and the absorptive poem, To Sir with Love. 

By way of contrast, there was plenty of humour.  Graham came back with verses describing how difficult it was to find rhymes for Tintoretto, a task that had exercised him during a visit to Venice.  However the master of comic verse was Robin.  First he had a dig at political correctness, with a story about a worker at the Civic Centre, who ticked all the boxes with Equal Opportunities legislation by being a deprived, multiple trans-gender … green Martian!  Taking up the theme of “indecision”, Robin then hilariously described a husband and wife in the marital bedroom, preparing for a night out, a “bit of a do”, and the age-old problem of what to wear.  Finally, his spooky verse had plenty of scary twists and turns, but was really gripping (where it hurts).

Using the unlikely vehicle of a haiku to reminder us that this inaugural meeting of Performance Poetry was taking place on Whit Sunday, Keith shared some thoughts about the perception of time.   The awe that the Apostles must have felt in receiving the Spirit at Pentecost was undoubtedly in a moment when time stood still for them.  Taking the idea of time standing still to the romanticism of lovers fearing his pain of separation, he read Louis McNiece’s poem Meeting Point in which “time was away and somewhere else” for two lovers in 1939 about to be separated by war.  Keith was the only contributor to read a published poem, but then followed this with his own, Our Room at Noon, which was on a similar theme.

As Keith had pointed out, the contrasting consciousness of time is that of “how time flies when you are enjoying yourselves” and everyone agreed that the two hours of varied verse, rich rhyme and personal poetry vanished very quickly.  (Helped a little with fare from The Adelaide.)

Mark Aspen

June 2017

Photography by Graham Harmes

 

Roll Up! Roll Up! The Ultimate Feel-Good Barnum

Barnum

by Michael Stewart, and Cy Coleman

Twickenham Operatic Society at the Hampton Hill Theatre until 27th May

Review by Mary Stoakes

Barnum tells the life history of the great American impresario and circus owner in terms of musical theatre and in his programme notes, director Ian Stark, mentions the difficulties of staging such a ‘big top’ entertainment in the confines of the Hampton Hill Theatre.

This was a less lavish production than the one which TOpS mounted just twenty years ago but ingenious use of the stage resources  and a hardworking cast brought the ‘greatest show on earth’ to renewed and exciting life in Hampton Hill.  Stunning back projections were used to delineate the many different locations and a huge elephant’s eye and part head represented the appearance of Jumbo to great effect.   Parades through the auditorium helped to further the circus illusion, as did the ‘bricklayers’ juggling routines as they built Barnum’s famous Museum.  Scene changing was slick and kept to a minimum with the more intimate scenes being delineated by the use of carefully managed drapes and screens.

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The musically accomplished band was placed at the rear of the stage, high above the action.  This tended to upset the balance with the singers below, who had difficulty in projecting over some rather overpowering accompaniment, especially in the more reflective songs.   With that criticism out of the way, the colourful big production numbers were very successful, played with great energy by the bands, both real and mimed.  The brightly costumed chorus worked their socks off with some remarkable juggling and acrobatic skills (there was even a ‘fire eater’!)  There were some exceptional song and dance routines in which all the cast sang, danced and even mimed with great precision, beautifully choreographed by Lacey Creed: especially effective were Come Follow the Band and the very different Black and White.

PT Barnum, the great impresario, was played with loads of charisma by Ben Roberts.   Many years ago Michael Crawford laid down the benchmark performance but Ben managed to bring something of his own to the role.  The ‘humbug’ was put over with just a hint of self-doubt and the more thoughtful aspects of the character were developed very believably throughout the show.   The Colours of my Life was delightful and the patter in some of his other numbers was well delivered.    We speculated as to how Ben would manage the fabled tight rope walking scene.  In the event, the illusion was well maintained and Barnum safely negotiated his way along the ‘rope’

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Ellie Barrett, a newcomer to TOpS, was the perfect foil for Barnum, as his sensible and hard-done-by wife, Chairy.  This was a well-rounded and touching performance, full of character with good singing and excellent interaction with both her stage husband and the rest of the cast.

Another stand-out performance was that of Charlie Booker as ‘General’ Tom Thumb.  The illusion of his stature was imaginatively realised by seating him initially on a huge chair and, in the solo number which followed, Charlie’s delightful personality and song and dance skills shone out.  He also made a vibrant contribution to the ensemble routines.

As Jenny Lind, hired by Barnum to perform in America after her success in Europe, Cate Blackmore with her powerful soprano voice made an instant hit in her opening appearance.    Unfortunately during her solo number she was rather let down by the amplification which tended to distort some of her notes and this reviewer felt the band were less supportive than they should have been!   Nevertheless the singing was great, following the traditions of Twickenham Operatic Society, and she looked and acted delightfully as The Swedish Nightingale

Fiona Stark, reprising her role of twenty years ago, contributed a humorous cameo as Joice Heth, the Oldest Woman Alive, whom it was claimed by Barnum was George Washington’s nurse.  Dan Doidge was in good form as the Ringmaster, presiding over the proceedings with great aplomb and doubling as James Bailey, who eventually joined Barnum to mastermind their world renowned circus.  The smaller roles were all well characterised by members of the company who showed their versatility by joining the ensemble as tumblers, jugglers, clowns, aerialists, acrobats, dancers, gymnasts, strongmen, bricklayers, passers-by, museum patrons, beefeaters, Bridgeport Pageant Choir and bands of every size.

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This was the ultimate ‘feel good’ show and once again TOpS loyal and enthusiastic following left Hampton Hill Theatre full of praise for Ian Stark’s most enjoyable production.

Mary Stoakes

May 2017

Photographs by Ace

Mirrors of Adultery: This Was a Man

This Was a Man

By Noël Coward

West End Premiere of a Controversial Masterpiece

Venture Wolf at Leicester Square Theatre until 28th May

Review by Mark Aspen

What are society’s values?  This is the question that Noël Coward asks in his This Was a Man.  Unfortunately for Coward, it was also the question that the Lord Chamberlain was also asking in 1926.  In September of that year, Lord Cromer, as Lord Chamberlain, banned the play as it “involves an amount of adultery, cynically and light-heartedly treated, which makes the play more than dubious”.  Sir Douglas Dawson, his Comptroller, added, “What better propaganda could the Soviet instigate?  Every character in this play, presumably ladies and gentlemen, leads an adulterous life and glories in doing so”.

Of course, 1926 was the year of the General Strike and then was a fear of revolution in the air, so Coward’s satirising adulterous aristocrats might have been incendiary. It may well be that some people, aristocratic or otherwise, might have considered a moral duty pointless after the slaughter of the Great War, a few years earlier. However, it was barely three years previously that Cromer and Dawson had reluctantly passed Coward’s The Vortex for licencing, in spite of the play being about a married lady from the upper echelons of society who has a toy-boy and whose son is a cocaine addict.

This Was a Man is a play clearly rooted in its time, and there it lay for nearly nine decades until the Finborough Theatre resurrected it in 2014.  It has never until now had a West End production.

Hence, Venture Wolf’s production, now running at the Leicester Square Theatre, is to be greatly admired for its ambitious enterprise in taking a three-fold risk:  resurrecting the play, showing it in the West End, and setting it in a different period.  But it is a Noël Coward, so what could go wrong?

Coward wrote many unperformed or unpublished play scripts, including nearly a dozen in 1918, the year that he was discharged from the army on medical grounds, so there may well be good reasons why these scripts, and that of This Was a Man, have gone unproduced.  The scenes all seem to be truncated, and seems as if This Was a Man is really a sketch-book for other pieces, (Private Lives perhaps, produced in 1929).

Society portrait painter Edward Churt circle is a thirties-something martini and mah-jong glitterati for whom adultery is as much a social must as the season. His attractive wife Carol enjoys a series of passionate affairs while he turns a blind eye.

This Was a Man is certainly not the best Noël Coward script to work from, but director James Paul Taylor has made the daring choice of resetting it forward by nearly a half-century to the early seventies.  Unfortunately, however, this opens up many weaknesses in the play and undermines what might have been an outstanding production.  Trim-phones, tie-dye slash curtains and unkempt butlers neither fit with the louche, insouciant amoral atmosphere that the play demands or with its stylishly sparkling background of privilege.  Crucially, seventies’ non-contact dancing does not work for the crucial dance-seduction scene.

In spite of that caveat, the performance of Daisy Porter in the central role of Carol Churt, the vampish femme fatale, picks up the character with gusto.   Carol is described as “governed by sex” but, somewhat unfairly, “with no intellect to provide ballast”.  Although she seems to regard every man who comes past as a potential new plaything, she is by no means as single-dimensioned character as the other protagonists imply.  Porter sizzles in the role, sensual, incisive and with a subtlety of expression and just enough clipping of her vowels to smack of classic Coward.  With flaming red hair and dangerous red lipstick, matching Carol’s flaming red passion and dangerous red ensnarement, there is something as feline an Art Deco 1920’s Cartier panther about Porter.

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The feline nature comes spitting out in her interactions with Zoe St Merryn, her husband’s “close confidante” for whom “marriage is an overrated amusement”.  Zoe has just returned from New York, where she has been recuperating after her divorce, and is currently living in Claridges, which she regards as “austere”.  (Currently, in 2017, rooms are up to £2,220 per night: I just checked!)    When Carol and Zoe have the claws out, catty understates it!

Bibi Lucille, pitches the character of Zoe as a foil to Carol, more resilient and flinty, playing the part with subtlety.  (Incidentally, Lucille seems to be cornering the market in rediscoveries of famous playwrights, having recently acted in Shakespeare’s “lost” play Cardenio.)  Zoe had been the scapegoat for her philandering husband in their divorce in order to protect his reputation.  She regrets having taken a string of lovers in retaliation, but is now trying to rekindle the love of Edward.   In many respects, she is a mirror to Carol.

In fact the various characters all seem to be holding up figurative mirrors to each other defects.  Every one of them is nursing self-inflicted psychologic wounds, whilst keeping their real feelings well repressed, perhaps they don’t know what their real feelings are.

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The melancholic Edward Churt, presumably the once-a-man of the play’s title, has had “all the vitality sucked out of him”.   He believes himself to sophisticated and “civilised” by pretending to be indifferent to this wife’s quite open affairs.   So, he supress his emotions and rationalises this attitude by taking the “modern” view that Carol is “not his property”. In fact he is stuck in a trap of his own making.  Paul Vitty in this role, falls a little short in portraying the sense of sophisticated ennui demanded by Coward, and comes over more as depressed and impotent in his ability to act decisively, until it is all too late.

Enter Edward’s old school chum, Major Evelyn Bathurst, “Evie” to his friends, stiff upper lip, well starched, favourite adjective “splendid!”.   Evie knows about his pal’s problems with his wife, and suggests that she should be “read the Riot Act”, and that he is the one to do it.  What he doesn’t tell Edward, though, is the plan of action is to set a honey-trap in the form of a little tête-à-tête, an intimate dinner with Carol in his flat.  We begin to suspect Evie’s motives, but, true to his plan, he does confront her when she steps up her practiced seduction routine: “You have the soul of a harlot”.  But he is rebuffed with ridicule, then tears, then fainting.  He is no match for Carol’s skilled manipulations, and eventually breaks down in tears … as she creeps into his bedroom.   Tom Pyke growls away as Evie, postures and preens, but does not really convince as the polished military man with the brittle armour.   One would expect him to be buffed-up to impeccable perfection, both literally and figuratively, and certainly know how to pronounce “subaltern” and “blackguard”.  Evie may have feet of clay, but they wear mirror-finish boots.

Coward has badly served the five minor characters in the play, making them largely scene-setters.  However, reference must be made to Blackwell, Evie’s manservant, and almost mute part, played by James Chadburn.  Chadburn had Blackwell subtly eavesdropping on Carol and Evie’s intimacies, a slight nod, a hint of a raised eyebrow.  It was just enough not to pull the focus from the main action.

In these intimacies, Carol defends her serial infidelities as a reaction against her husband’s indifference to her.  Maybe it is a chicken and egg situation, but we do just begin to believe her.  Coward’s writing often shows an incipient misogyny, that the woman is culpable every time: an archetypical Eve holds out the bitten apple to a poor defenceless Adam.  But in This Was a Man, one feels some sympathy with Carol faced with the lot of emotionally incompetent oafs on the men’s side.

Just after writing This Was a Man, and having its performance licence refused, Coward had a nervous breakdown (on holiday in the Pacific!) and had been generally depressed about his work.  One wonders if Edward Churt is a symbolic self-portrait and Carol is a representation of his thwarted writings.

Coward certainly takes the opportunity to take a side-swipe at the Lord Chamberlain’s censors.  He has Edward suggest a trip to the theatre to see a play about a woman who takes a lover as young as her son, a play that the Church of England did not approve: clearly a reference to The Vortex.   Later he suggests to Zoe that they go to see a “clean play, a love story without sex” because it will be easy to get tickets.

You see, there are some Coward witticisms but the humour in it seems hollow.  Without Coward’s usual scintillating quips, there is not too much material to make the comedy zing.  Add sophistry without sophistication, and a glitterati without glitter, the Venture Wolf company were on a hard call.   It has used a low-budget vehicle to bring an almost-forgotten Coward to its West End premiere, and that is surely no mean achievement, for which the theatre world should be grateful.

Mark Aspen

May 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turbo-Charged Falsetto Fun! The Mikado

The Mikado

by W.S. Gilbert and A. Sullivan

Sasha Regan’s All-Male The Mikado

Regan De Wynter Productions at Richmond Theatre until 27th May

Review by Mark Aspen

Gilbert and Sullivan is fun! And The Mikado is probably G&S’s most fun piece.  As a well-seasoned reviewer, I have seen many manifestations of it: local light operatic societies’ versions, Jonathan Miller’s acknowledged classic, even The Hot Mikado, but with Sasha Regan’s All-Male The Mikado the fun is turbo-charged.

Director Sasha Regan’s inspiration for all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan has its spark in her own experiences of single-sex school cross-cast productions, and the awkward humour that can emerge.  Her The Mikado, is set in the fifties, as a typical all-boys’ boarding school take a camping trip to the exotic land of Titipu … and immediately goes native.  In spite of the obvious play on the idea of “camping”, this is not a Julian and Sandy Polari knockabout, but rather the gentle half-innocence of schoolboys squirming at the idea of dressing up as … girls!!  In fact, the only real camp elements were three tents and a campfire, continuously smouldering downstage (the fire, not the tents – although there was a lot of smouldering going on in these).

Ryan Dawson Laight’s economic design strips off theatrical embellishments: the highly mobile tents are almost the only set, and there is not a single kimono in sight.   However, these are set against Tim Deiling’s atmospherically lit cyc-cloth, a luminescent forest of leggy trees.

This economy of approach allows the characters to come to the fore, but relies heavily on the performers.  And my, how this works: for here is a truly multi-talented cast.  These boys can act, they can sing and they can dance.

A strong dance sequence opens the show, and Holly Hughes’ choreography is relevant and lyrical, nicely setting the scene.

 

The self-deprecating style, which adds to the humour, is obvious right from the overture, delivered on a solitary keyboard by tireless Musical Director Richard Baker.  Maybe my ear was falling in with the style of the production, but was the piano sound tuned to a slightly high pitch?  If so, it certainly foreshadowed the falsetto voices of the “female” characters.  How can singers take their so voices high in their register for a whole evening?   There is no change of key and they stay true to the characters.  It is literally breath-taking.

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But what about the “chap” chaps?  Our wandering minstrel, the hapless Nanki-Poo, is played straight down the middle by Richard Munday, a strong resonant tenor, as a somewhat bemused suitor, wandering in on all these bizarre goings-on.   However, the Lord High Everything Else, Pooh-Bah, vain, ambitious and hyper-mercenary, is given full-rein by the rich-voiced baritone Ross Finnie.  (There was something about Finnie that reminded me of Alex Salmond, but it may just have been the Sottish accent and tatty tartan waistcoat.)   Then, of course, the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko (a role created by W.S. Gilbert for D’Oyle Carte’s star, George Grossmith), here played by the lithe-limbed David McKechnie as an omnipresent éminence grise, who nevertheless has to wrestle with the difficult notion that  Lord High Executioners cannot cut off another person’s head, until they have cut off their own.  Ko-Ko also has to wrestle with tongue-twisting patter songs, including the “Little List”.  I was waiting for the conventional topical additions to those about whom he notes “they’d none of ’em be missed!”, but even in the midst of a general election campaign, there was alas none of the “none”.  No doubt the producers are playing very safe here.

The Mikado - David Mckechnie (Ko-Ko), courtesy of Stewart McPherson (2)

The “chaps” form a very strong contingent within a very strong ensemble company, but (and this is probably inevitable in a cross-cast production) it is the “girls” who steal the show.  The arrival of the “Three Little Maids” is always awaited with anticipation, but here the more so with our “girls”, Pitti-Sing (Jamie Jukes) and Peep-Bo (Richard Russell Edwards), played subtlety enough with just a hint of femininity (and shorts slightly rolled up) and their sister, Yum-Yum, the love interest of the show.  Alan Richardson is wonderful in this role, balancing the characterisation between sympathy and humour, without straying into caricature.  Perhaps typifying his approach is Yum-Yum’s solo “The sun, whose rays are all ablaze”, delivered with beauty without losing the irony.  All three “little maids” are remarkable in maintaining flawless falsetto, seemingly effortlessly, whilst preserving the integrity of their characters.

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For a grand entrance, that of Katisha must be hard to beat: in tweeds, on a “sit-up-and-beg” bicycle, and wearing three (!) hats, one top of another, with one upside-down.  This entrance though belies the impact of Alex Weatherhill’s outstanding portrayal of Katisha, which brings out the pathos and poignancy of the part.  The singing of solos pieces, such as “The hour of gladness is dead and gone” and “Alone, and yet alive” are poetic.  Nevertheless, the humour is never lost, the duet with Ko-Ko, the well-known “Tit Willow” laced a delicate lyricism through the broad fabric of fun.

David Mckechnie - Ko-Ko and Alex Weatherhill - Katisha

The rather complicated plot of comical contradictions, overlaid by Gilbert’s still applicable satirical social comment, comes to an end with the deus ex machina, the Mikado himself.  Bass, James Waud strides into this part with great stage presence as the pragmatic despot, summoning up as much benevolence as one can from one who looks forward to boiling miscreants in oil.

Sasha Regan, was awarded the Special Achievement Award at the “Offies” earlier this year for her contribution to musical theatre, her all-male G&S shows, conceived at her home base at the Union Theatre.   Of the current tour of The Mikado, she says it “is going to be a great year – it’s beyond exciting”.

Regan pitches The Mikado just right: never plays for laughs where they would be misplaced, but lets the mirth rip where it is right; never parodies where lyricism is best; but never slams on the brakes when the turbo-charger kicks in the fun.   Titipu will never be the same again.

Mark Aspen

May 2017

Photographs Courtesy of Stewart McPherson.

Epitome of Charm: Dashing Dalby and his Bountiful Daughter

Dashing Dalby and his Bountiful Daughter

By Keith Wait

SMDG at Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, 13th May

Review by Celia Bard

Nestling on the River Thames in Hampton is a small, picturesque pleasure garden hiding a tiny treasure, Garrick’s Temple, built by David Garrick in the 18th Century to celebrate the talents of William Shakespeare.  This delightful little building was a fitting venue for Keith Wait’s latest drama documentary, Dashing Dalby and his Bountiful Daughter, in which he draws heavily from social history, meticulously researched material of people closely associated with Hampton, and St.Mary’s Parish Church and its churchyard, situated just a few hundred feet away from Garrick’s beautiful folly.  Indeed, the main inspiration for his story may be said to be the “funny tomb” of Three Men in a Boat fame, which turns out to be the tomb, positioned on the east wall at the end of the south aisle of St. Mary’s church, of Susanna Thomas and her mother, Lady Dorothy.

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Although this was a rehearsed reading, SMDG (St. Mary’s Drama Group) succeeded in entertaining its audience with a thoughtful, imaginative, and well-constructed production.  Skilfully directed by Helen Smith, narrators and actors gave life to these long dead folk, otherwise forgotten.

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Photograph by Bill Bulford

Genteel music sets the scene for the entrance of the Venturers, businessmen involved in financial enterprises involving risk.  The Venturers are carrying a gaming board, but before their game begins they are interrupted by the energetic entrance of Dalby Thomas, a merchant and courtier, described by the narrator as a “complex character, highly principled, rash and brash with a strong propensity to upset people”.  Ron Hudson’s interpretation of this role was excellent.  He was highly successful in portraying the many facets of this character’s personality, at times protagonist and then antagonist as judged from his life style and the effect this has on his wife’s perspective of their relationship.  I would respectfully suggest that more dialogue between the two reflecting this would have added more to our understanding of these characters.

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Lady Dorothy (Gina Way) and Mrs Thomas (Christina Bulford). Photograph by Doina Moss

Dalby’s wife, played by Gina Way, was credible in the way she could convey the age range expected of her.  At the beginning of her relationship with Dalby she is romantic, young, and very much in love with him.  But after two children and forced to spend many years apart from him because of his travels, she becomes disheartened, preferring to live away from Hampton and in her father’s estates in Blandford.  This was reflected in her characterisation.

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Sir T Archer (William Ormerod) and Mrs Thomas (Christina Bulford).  Photograph by Bill Bulford

Although I am loathe to single out individuals, for the whole of the cast were admirable, I should like to further mention Christina Bulford.  This young actress has a striking stage presence and gave a lively and thoughtful performance as Susanna Thomas, the daughter of Dalby.  Susanna is an interesting character for she is clothed in a thin veil of mystery.  The audience is never certain about the nature of her relationship with Sir Thomas Archer, the eminent architect, and whom Susanna describes as “witty and the epitome of charm”.   The mystery continues for after her death one of the main beneficiaries in her will, Susanna Warren, is a five-year old orphan from Barbados, who is to inherit all her estates except those in Hampton.  Why this should be so is not revealed.  Perhaps Keith Wait will enlighten us in his next instalment of this series which he presents at Garrick’s Temple.

Further mention must be made of the director, Helen Smith.  The actors only had a tiny area in which to perform but Helen managed to organise them so that they were never static for long.  She made use of the central aisle for entrances and varied her groupings.  This, together with the pace in which one scene moved from one to the next, the vocal pace and the suitability of their wardrobe which transverse the centuries, served to make this a most enjoyable, visually pleasing, and informative production.

Celia Bard

May 2017

Footloose and Fancy Free: Footloose the Musical

Footloose the Musical

Sell-a-Door at Richmond Theatre until 20th May

Review by Georgia Renwick

Oh, to be footloose and fancy free! Footloose the Musical, which is appearing at Richmond Theatre this week as part of a UK tour, is a slice of life in Southern-State 1980s America.  Bursting with vivacious songs and energetic, aerobic dance moves, whilst also bristling with teenage angst and rebellion.  It tells the story of teenager Ren and his mother, who have moved to the fictional town of Bomont where dancing, liquor and rock and roll have been banned – but they don’t let that stop them! It is a rip-roaring retro blast of 80s nostalgia; denim cut offs, pom-poms, milkshakes, roller skates, baseball caps and good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll all make an appearance, but then some things never go out of style!  And Footloose still has the recipe for a foot-stomping, fun night out.

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The original 1984 movie was loosely based on events that took place in the small, rural town of Elmore, Oklahoma – and if you have seen the 1984 movie (or the 2011 reboot) you may be thinking you’ve seen it all before – but you would be wrong.  This revival takes the 1998 screen-to-stage musical version, which featured new songs as well as the hit title track Footloose and other big 80s hitters including Holding out for a Hero and I’m Free, and gives it a kick for a new generation.  The newly remixed songs (under the direction of David Keech) are played with panache by the incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist actors, including, besides the usual keys and guitars, a flute, clarinet, harmonica, three saxophones with the drummer conducting it all from his drum cage on high.  Having the musicians perform on stage for us brings a freshness and playfulness to the sometimes synthetic musical style.  Lauren Storer silences the town council with her flute, seeing the strict town pastor give a solo on the electric guitar is a special moment, and there’s even a credible rap.

 

The addition of instruments has the ensemble cast gelling in a collaborative water-tight way that is rarely seen, and it’s a joy to watch.  The vocal talents of the girls are given the freedom to really shine, belting in faultless harmony.  They may not have as large a chorus to play with as some of the larger West End musicals, but their pace and energy more than make up for it.  It never sounds too thin.  Designer Sarah Perks has also done a fantastic job of creating a compact set that encompasses the organised chaos of a instrumentalist-actor company, who are able to move about slickly.  The neon lights flash to the pulse of the show, it’s a real party atmosphere!

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Joshua Dowen and Hannah Price lead the cast as Ren (made famous by Kevin Bacon) and Ariel, their chemistry as a pairing is very natural and heats up as the show goes on, as a surprising amount of emotional depth comes into play.  Gareth Gates puts paid to the pop star cliché of playing the romantic lead by taking on the comedy role of Ren’s friend Willard.  With his deep-south accent, straw hat, dungarees and toothpick he was almost unrecognisable from the gawky Pop Idol I remember and he proves in this production he is more than just a famous face with the cheekiness, charm and excellent comic timing he lends to his role.  His cameo in Holding Out for a Hero also showed off some other new … ahem … assets.

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It was a pleasure to see Maureen Nolan as mother to Ariel and school principal, after her many years in both the West End and touring productions of Blood Brothers.  Her throaty vocal is the most passionate of the production, a credit to a show which gives voice not only to the younger generation but also to the feelings of their parents, caught between trying to protect their children and wanting them to be happy.

 

 

Footloose tells a story of young people kicking up against the rules and making themselves heard, which teens of any generation can relate to but at present more than most.  The presence of Trump in the American and indeed world consciousness is unavoidable, and by the young people, largely unwanted.  (Statistical aside: If just the votes of 18-25 year olds had counted, 93% of electoral votes would have been Democrat blue.  Here in the UK at the minute it is a similar story.  If just the votes of our 18-25 year old’s had been counted in the referendum – out of a 63% youth turnout – we would have remained in the EU.)   In Footloose the pastor has to concede that his fears cannot hold back an entire generation from their birthright to dance, 33 years since the script first aired, are the grown-ups still making the same mistakes?

It’s not a question that this production tries to answer, but young and old alike we could all use for a night of footloose and fancy free fun and foot-stomping, and this is just the ticket.

Georgia Renwick

May 2017